One of the great debates, and I use that term loosely, we have had over the past decade in Northern Irish politics is whether the Alliance Party are more nationalist or unionist. Instead of letting Alliance, and the people who vote for them, define what the party stands for, certain elements of the political establishment, in particular political unionism, have gone out of their way to attempt to define Alliance as being somewhere on the spectrum between anti-unionist and pro-republican.
This narrative played out in the run up to the 2019 local government election, with Ulster Unionist candidates in East Belfast trying to link the Alliance Party with the IRA. We have also seen people like Ruth Dudley Edwards attempt to portray Alliance as being nothing more than a ‘Sinn Féin patsy in republican takeover of Belfast City Hall’. This strategy has seen the Alliance vote in Belfast surge whilst the Ulster Unionists have seen their representation on the Council drop to two, and then one. There have been some attempts to determine how often Alliance vote with different parties but the results of these efforts have not been definitive and have faced accusations of being partisan.
Having trawled through the minutes of meetings of Belfast City Council for 2015-2019 we can see that there were 86 recorded votes (as opposed to the more common and simple show of hands which does not record which councillor voted which way) and the results are revealing. This study looked at all recorded votes which took place between 5th May 2015 and 29th April 2019 (as this is the period where minutes are publicly available) and identified how each party voted on each recorded vote. A party vote was determined as being when the majority of councillors present voted a certain way, as there are some occasions when members of the same party voted different ways.
The figures show that there are very distinct voting blocs in Belfast City Hall and there are parties who often vote together and parties who rarely do so.
The two parties which voted together the greatest proportion of the time were the DUP & UUP (77%) and the two parties which voted together the least were the DUP & SDLP and the UUP & Sinn Féin (both 26%). It is interesting to note that whilst the two largest unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, voted together 77% of the time, the two largest nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, only voted together 66% of the time.
As mentioned above, there is always great interest in how Alliance vote in City Hall, and the figures show that Alliance are more likely to vote with the SDLP (69%) and Sinn Féin (60%) than they are to vote with the UUP (37%) and the DUP (34%).
Much has been made in recent years about attempts to strengthen the ‘middle ground,’ which has become defined as the SDLP and UUP, (how can we forget ‘Vote Colum, Get Mike’?), but those two parties only voted together 33% of the time. This compares to the 69% of the time the SDLP voted with Alliance, suggesting that the ‘middle ground’ has shifted and now exists between the SDLP and Alliance, as the UUP seem more interested in voting with the DUP than with anyone else.
There have long since been accusations levelled at the DUP and Sinn Féin that on Belfast City Council, like in the Assembly, there is a carve up between the two ‘big’ parties, but this is not evident from the figures as the DUP and Sinn Féin only voted together 26% of the time. Whilst it may be the case that the two big parties have voted together on the allocation of funding for community groups, on the whole they do not have a close voting relationship.
These figures don’t tell us everything, for example not every vote has the same weight in terms of importance, but do show that the unionist parties vote together more often than the nationalist parties do, and that unionists and nationalists rarely vote together. They also tell us that Alliance vote with the nationalist parties more often than the unionist parties. These figures also tell us that both the unionist blocs and the nationalist blocs need Alliance to vote with them to have a majority, so the decision by Alliance of which way to vote is crucial. Following the 2019 local government election, where the 60 seats are dispersed across a larger number of parties, there are different paths to build a majority, and it will be interesting to see whether these voting patterns continue.
Niall Kelly is a former Belfast City Councillor who has worked on various political campaigns during the past 15 years. He has an interest in politics and data, and how they interact with each other. Follow at @nkbelfast